Why we've all got to retrain for the electric revolution

Published: 17 August 2010

Think you know what makes a car tick? I thought I did. Now I’m no engineer or even a particularly gifted mechanic, but I’ve stripped cars to naked shells, rebuilt engines from the bare block up, changed clutches, swapped head gaskets and generally fiddled with enough motors to vaguely keep up when some boffin on a car launch is explaining his new variable valve giggling pin.

But lunching with some very clever people from the world’s car makers during a break driving the new electric Golf at the Silvretta e-rally for the new September 2010 issue of CAR Magazine, I realised I was suddenly so out of my depth I’d need a sonar to see the bottom. The world of cars is going through the biggest change in its 115-year existence and we journalists are going to have to go back to school to keep up.

Why current thinking changes everything

And as if just working out what all the new mechanical bits on a car actually do wasn’t enough, we need to know about the debate raging over conventional AC charging (which is converted to DC on the car) or the far faster but more expensive direct DC charging system. We need to know about the pros and cons of using synchronous as opposed to other types of motors, about the difference between types of lithium ion batteries and that boosting battery output without even touching the motor can give a big jump in performance. And then we need to get our heads around the true cost of powering our cars without oil, financial, environmental and otherwise.

Journalists and their readers aren’t the only ones with some swotting up to do. It’s happening at the car makers too, where engineers are seeing their roles changing dramatically.

Back to school for petrol-sniffing engineers

The team responsible for the powertrain on the new electric Golf is not same team responsible for the petrol and diesel engines. It’s the team that used to be in charge of the electric power steering programme. And at Land Rover, technicians are being sent back to school to learn about electric propulsion.

It’s why tiny fish are suddenly massively important, why Toyota, the world’s biggest car maker has jumped into bed with Tesla, a super-niche start-up with no car-building history but with electric know-how that would take years to learn from scratch. Whether you’re talking about the car as a species, the people making them or us writing about them, the lesson is the same: adapt or die. Our only comfort is that we’ll wager a few of you might have a bit of work to do to!

>> Read Chris's drive of the electric Golf in the world's biggest electric car e-rally in the new September 2010 issue of CAR Magazine out on 18 August

By Chris Chilton

Contributing editor, ace driver, wit supplier, mischief maker